Virginia’s Election on Tuesday Will Test the Power of Silicon Valley’s New Activists

On Friday, Ryan Ko finished up his latest consulting project at McKinsey & Company and Ubered to the San Francisco Airport. His destination: the political hotbed of Virginia. This weekend is the final sprint leading up to Tuesday’s gubernatorial election, which is being seen as a crucial test of the nation’s political direction in the Trump era. Ko and a small army of Silicon Valley political activists are helping Old Dominion Democrats get out the vote. Many of them have also been working remotely for months, supplying Virginia candidates with the digital tools they need for victory.

Ko usually spends his work days bouncing between conference calls and strategy meetings. But the 28-year-old MIT-trained business adviser is also a political junkie. Last year, when Donald Trump’s electoral chances started looking nontrivial, he dropped everything and headed to Virginia for three months to volunteer as a regional director for Hillary Clinton. She won the state by more than 5 percentage points, one blue state in the sea of Southern red. (Ko’s LinkedIn profile reads: #ImStillWithHer.)

Then he had to deal with a massive post-election hangover. “I come back to my liberal bubble in the Bay Area in December, start my white-collar job on the 48th floor of the second-tallest building in San Francisco, with my five-dollar cup of Philz Coffee,” he says. “And I wondered: ‘How do I stay involved?’ ”

Ryan Ko.

Balazs Gardi for WIRED

To start, Ko wrote a Medium post with a title cribbed from a Bernie tweet (“Democracy is Not a Spectator Sport”) urging his fellow Women’s Marchers into three levels of continuing activism, from donating money to calling their elected officials to the third level: “Be the Change.” Ko, it should be obvious by now, is a level three kind of guy: This spring he led a group of 10 Silicon Valley types to canvass in Georgia for the handsomely financed but ultimately unsuccessful congressional candidate Jon Ossoff. He also signed up for a group forged after Election Day called Tech for Campaigns, part of an emerging resistance movement in Silicon Valley.

In the wake of Trump’s election, signs of a grassroots activism in the tech industry have been everywhere: management-endorsed Googleplex protests; tech workers participating in their first political marches; executives from Tesla, Intel, and IBM leaving the president’s advisory councils. There’s also a growing realization that the most effective form of resistance is winning state and local elections. It’s an uphill struggle: Republicans now control both statehouse chambers in 32 states (up from 14 in 2010) and 34 of the 50 governorships (not to mention the US House and Senate and the presidency). Conservatives have spent decades—and especially the Obama years—cultivating these lower-profile electoral pastures, grooming political talent for higher offices and experimenting with policies that can go national. In the process, they have often passed voter suppression laws and redrawn districts, paving the path for Republican wins years down the line.

The spate of tech-oriented grassroots organizations that have emerged in 2017 are finally learning from that Republican playbook, trying to build up power in time for the redistricting that will follow the 2020 census. The list of new organizations includes Tech for Campaigns, Flippable, MobilizeAmerica, Run for Something, Sister District, Pantsuit Nation, the Arena, and One Vote at a Time. But they are playing the game their way—by outfitting down-ballot campaigns with top tech industry volunteers, using data science to funnel efforts to the most winnable districts, and harnessing the latest digital tools for organizing volunteers, connecting their supporters, and crowdfunding donations and their own operations costs.

Nearly a year after the election, these groups have matured and gained donors, members, and confidence. Sister District, which connects volunteers in blue districts with candidates in swing areas, boasts 25,000 people who have participated in at least one action—and three of its four cofounders have quit their jobs to run it full time. Tech for Campaigns has signed up nearly 3,000 volunteers, completed 50 projects, and launched a crowdfunding campaign to enable it to participate in 500 races in 2018’s midterm showdown. Meanwhile, Clinton campaign vets launched Flippable, crunching data to identify the most winnable seats and crowdsourcing donations to finance them. Now it has nine full-time staff, has siphoned $550,000 and 3,000 volunteers into state-level campaigns across the country, and hopes to help up to 100 candidates next year.

The first real statewide test of these new organizations will arrive November 7 when Virginia voters go to the polls to elect members of the commonwealth’s House of Delegates election. Virginia is one of only two states with off-year elections this year, and the only swing state. (The other is New Jersey, which is safely Democratic.) Meanwhile, Virginia has shown itself to lean blue in statewide elections—it has Democratic governor and two Democratic US senators—yet the House of Delegates is a staggering 66–34 Republican. All 100 delegates are up for election next month: Dems need to gain 17 seats to get a majority. (On the other hand, if Republicans gain just one more seat they’d have a supermajority to override a governor veto.)

Certainly, the state’s gubernatorial race is more high-profile—attracting Trump tweets and an Obama appearance, plus big national money for the candidates, Republican Ed Gillespie and Democrat Ralph Northam, including almost $1 million from Tom Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action for the Democrat*. Paul Krugman recently wrote in a New York Times op-ed: “Folks, right now this is where the action is: Virginia is now the most important place on the US political landscape—and what happens there could decide the fate of the nation.” At a recent event in Reston, a DC suburb, Joe Biden said a Democratic win in Virginia would “give people hope we are not falling into this know-nothing pit.” Meanwhile, vice president Mike Pence said at a campaign stop in the Trumpian southwestern part of the state, “Tell somebody President Trump and I need Ed Gillespie to be the next governor of Virginia.” (In recent weeks Gillespie’s candidacy has been gaining momentum. The latest Real Clear Politics polling average finds him behind Northam by a mere 2 percentage points. Two weeks ago he was trailing by almost 6.)

But the new resistance orgs see the down-ballot races—usually boot-strap, low budget affairs—as the places where their grassroots money, tech savvy, and volunteers go further. Suddenly the race for 17 seats in a Southern statehouse is something much bigger: not just a test of Democrats’ ability to ride an anti-Trump backlash into office but a dry run for 2018 and a test of how much techie allies like Ryan Ko can help.

In August, Ko slipped out of a work meeting in that 48th floor office for an extracurricular call—this one from Virginia. Leading the meeting was the candidate Tech for Campaigns had assigned Ko’s team: Jennifer Carroll Foy, a public defender who is running to represent a diverse DC commuter district in northern Virginia with stark economic inequality.

On the stump, Foy talks about bread-and-butter issues like busting gnarly traffic, boosting teacher salaries, and expanding Medicaid to more Virginians. But she also ventures into national topics, like being “pissed off” by Trump. It doesn’t take a McKinsey consultant to figure out she has good chances in her district, where 56 percent of voters supported Clinton (and just 39 percent Trump). The current delegate, a Republican, is retiring and won the last election by a mere 125 votes. It is, in other words, a likely pickup for Democrats. The state party has been pouring resources into her campaign, and Senator Tim Kaine and former Vice President Biden have endorsed her.

As Ko listened in, Foy’s campaign manager Teddy Smyth explained the help he needed on the digital front. One Tech for Campaigns team would revamp Foy’s website (a basic placeholder Foy had built herself on Wix). Another group would focus on paid Facebook advertising. A third team would trawl through donor databases to find people who, as Ko puts it, “if called by the campaign to donate, would.” (Their goal: $250,000.) Ko was assigned to coordinate this effort with two other volunteers. One was a software engineer for a health tech firm in Philadelphia, who protested for the first time after Trump’s Muslim travel ban. The other was a New York–based programmer for Bloomberg, who said this was his first dip into politics beyond donating.

Before these volunteers showed up, Smyth had Foy methodically calling potential donors—by manually looking up their phone numbers one at a time and handing them to her. Ko’s efficiency-driven mind reeled: “We’re like, ‘You’re wasting time,’ ” he says. The two engineers on Ko’s team took a list of potential donors the campaign had already identified and cross-checked it with the data that Tech for Campaigns had earlier scraped from publicly available records of Democratic donors in Virginia to prioritize who was most likely to donate.

They compiled the data into a Google Sheet—names, phone numbers, and a donation history. And then they gave Foy’s campaign a quick tutorial on how to use it. “I knew technology is something we could do better,” Smyth says, “but just didn’t know how to do it. I was able to grow my team by 12 people”—Tech for Campaigns volunteers, free of charge—“and am thrilled with the outcome.” As of mid-October, the calls that Foy and her finance director made off of Ko’s list had generated roughly one-sixth of their campaign budget.

Rita Bosworth, founder and director of The Sister District Project.

Balazs Gardi for WIRED

Tech for Campaigns’ intervention is just the beginning of the help the Foy campaign is getting from the tech-fueled post-Trump groups. A film crew from One Vote at a Time flew in from Los Angeles and Oakland, invading Foy’s house with boom lights and microphones to film a professional campaign ad for free. (One Vote at a Time crowdfunded $36,000 to produce in-depth ads for three Virginia candidates, and one of its filmmakers invited scores of other candidates to a studio to produce shorter ones.) Run for Something—a group encouraging millennials to run for office—sent canvassers, and volunteers have been able to sign up for shifts via MobilizeAmerica.

Every Tuesday, Smyth has hosted a group call with representatives of 40 groups, including longstanding progressive allies like Emily’s List combined with the latest upstarts, like Flippable, which brought in $15,000 in national donations to Foy. The groups working on delegate races have a Slack channel and a monthly call to make sure they’re not tripping over each other. Foy’s Sister Districts in Massachusetts and Vermont have sent nearly $10,000, including money collected by the Vermont group’s soup subscription. All in all, Foy was able to raise $513,057 by the most recent campaign finance filing deadline compared to her opponent’s $228,397.

Even groups that aren’t offering tech assistance per se are using off-the-shelf technology to build their own internal infrastructure. For example, Sister District founder Rita Bosworth is an attorney—not a programmer—but she easily built the organization’s website on Squarespace. The week after the election, she had penned a Facebook post in a lawyer’s forum suggesting an idea for directing the Democratic political energy wasted in already deeply blue areas to instead flip red ones. “Six hundred people ‘liked’ my comment, which is a record for me,” Bosworth says with a chuckle. The group assigns its volunteers in blue congressional districts to phone bank, canvass, and make donations to a specific down-ballot race on swing turf.

The organization expanded using MailChimp and Slack, plus fund-raising platforms ActBlue and Crowdpac. Some of their more tech-minded volunteers—employees at Google, Facebook, and Amazon—crunched data to identify winnable elections in Virginia this year and thousands of seats for midterms next year, the equivalent of “the Harry Potter sorting hat,” quips Sister District political director Gaby Goldstein.

Sister District started with data already compiled by the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, Daily Kos, Ballotpedia, US Census, and state party data to identify the most strategic seats. The team then looked more closely at those seats—their Cooke Partisan Voting Index score of political leanings, how much Dems raised there in prior cycles, voter turnout rate.

Goldstein contacted political groups on the ground in each district to learn what numbers alone don’t show—maybe a college town that would be more amenable to outsider help or a Republican incumbent with a Democratic family who may be harder to unseat. “The community context you can’t get from a spreadsheet,” Goldstein says. They homed in on 13 Virginia candidates—who overlap with many of those targeted by the new spate of organizations. So far, Sister District’s volunteers have fund-raised $260,000 for Virginia delegate races, Bosworth says.

In the final push, 250 volunteers are traveling to the state from Maryland, New York, and California on their own dime to get out the vote on the ground. “The conversation is, ‘What’s your plan to vote?’” Goldstein said Friday while taking a break from her assigned canvassing route in Newport News. “‘What time of day do you plan on voting? How are getting there? Do you know where your polling place is?’” The races can be determined by just a hundred votes, every single one counts.

The sprint to Tuesday is the culmination of months of work. Back on a weeknight in August, San Francisco’s branch of Sister District gathered to boost their assigned Virginia candidate. In the coming weeks, they’d meet for weekend phone banking and postcard-writing, but this night was about money. About 50 San Francisco Democrats of Nancy Pelosi’s 12th district gathered in the outdoor patio of a dive bar in the city’s Mission District to make donations while they partied.

The middle-aged crowd donned Sister District pins, dug into plates of tater-tot nachos, and watched a low-budget video of a stump speech by Elizabeth Guzman, the Peruvian-born candidate whose platform calls for raising Virginia’s $7.25-an-hour minimum wage and extending driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. (Told of the scene over the phone, the Virginia House Democratic Caucus director Trent Armitage marveled, “A couple years ago a candidate like Elizabeth Guzman having a fund-raiser in San Francisco would have been unheard of.”)

After the video, the crowd woo-hoo-ed Guzman’s platform and booed the 15-year incumbent’s vote for defunding Planned Parenthood. They texted a number to receive a link to Guzman’s ActBlue donation page. A retired Intel salesman wearing a Linux Foundation hoodie strummed a guitar and sang a folk song that he’d written, working an Edward Snowden reference into the verses’ lineup of resistance figures:

Who am I, just a tech nerd/Working for the NSA/Releasing all those secrets/Now change is gonna come

By the end of the night, the group had donated $2,000 to Guzman, double the event’s goal.

Tech alone will not win elections, but Daniel Kreiss, a University of North Carolina associate professor who studies tech in electoral politics, says down-ballot is where the tech-targeting can make the most impact. “They’re figuring out which doors to knock on, which voters are most likely to show up and vote and be persuadable,” he says. “So to the extent you can figure out where to direct limited campaign resources, that’s where the technology and data would give you a competitive advantage.”

Certainly gaining 17 seats is no small feat, but Tech for Campaigns founder Jessica Alter says she—along with many of the other new orgs—are taking the long view: getting Dems into state power nationwide before the 2021 redistricting. “One of the reasons we’ve lost so many seats is because Democrats don’t invest and end up giving up and saying ‘not winnable right now.’ We didn’t win in Montana and Kansas special elections this year, but we came a hell of a lot closer. And maybe in the next cycle we can win.”

Tech for Campaigns cofounder Jessica Alter.

Balazs Gardi for WIRED

Alter became an activist in the wake of Trump’s first travel ban in January. A San Francisco startup founder between companies, she halted mid-jog to text a friend (“I can’t sit there and let it be a slow boil to Nazism”)—and then launched a questionnaire asking tech talent to volunteer for Democratic candidates. Alter dug into research on tech in politics and learned something that astonished her: In a time when people’s ideas of politics are largely formed and expressed online, just 5 to 10 percent of Democratic campaign budgets is spent in the digital realm. She learned from Google’s election team that Republican 2016 Senate campaigns outspent Democrats 3:1 on the platform. So she became determined to bring digital tools to down-ballot campaigns for free, having volunteer tech specialists pitch in a few hours a week to apply their skills in social media, donor research, website assistance, and data science to a specific campaign.

To continue the rollout to the 2018 elections and hire staff, the group launched a crowdfunding campaign in October with a $250,000 goal (and, by press time, had raised more than $220,000) to support the launch of 500 projects. Tech for Campaigns enticed donors by giving them exclusive access to digital panel discussions on tech in politics from the likes of Y Combinator president Sam Altman and US senator Cory Booker.

As these groups play the role of flashy startups to the institutional Democratic Party, the party is still figuring out whether or how to engage them directly. Virginia caucus director Armitage has welcomed the grassroots help, which he says is “necessary to keep pace with what the Koch Brothers and right-wing groups are doing to support our opponents.” Still, Bosworth, the Sister District founder, says she’s gotten a more tepid reaction. “I was so convinced they were going to come and snap Sister District up”—as part of the official party operations—“but it didn’t happen.” In fact, she says, “I got a phone call from the local Democratic party leader. He reached out and asked, half-jokingly, if I was a libertarian spy.”

In the short term for Virginia, it’s going to take a mixture of grassroots energy and technical help, plus party organizations and voters’ Trump-piqued anger, to claw back any of the 17 seats the Dems covet. Tech for Campaigns’ teams is helping candidates direct last-minute donations into targeted digital advertising.

Beyond leading his Tech for Campaigns team, Ryan Ko also wanted to dive into old-school tactics. The day after his first call with Foy, Ko flew to Virginia to canvass for Sheila Crowley, a fellow former Clinton volunteer he knew who is now running for delegate. After Ko’s plane landed at Dulles, he and his girlfriend took in the news bubbling up on their phones: White supremacists were marching on Charlottesville with tiki torches. They debated: Would their limited time in Virginia be better spent counterprotesting neo-Nazis?

The McKinsey consultant ran the electoral ROI in his head: A counterprotest has symbolic and moral heft and is good optics for the news. Yet Ko knew that, even in the age of Facebook and donor targeting, facetime with voters is still the most effective way to get people to the polls. Foy’s campaign aims to knock—twice—on the doors of their targeted supporters.

In the end, the decision was obvious. “Protesting is great and important,” Ko says. “But in this day and age, it’s got to be more than showing up on a Saturday. Turning votes is what matters.” So he opted to canvas for Crowley. And this weekend he headed back to Virginia to finish the job.

  • Correction: An earlier version of this article said that Sean Parker recently donated $200,000 to Democrat Ralph Northam. That donation was made in 2013.

Google, Facebook Helped Anti-Islam Group During 2016 Election

The flaws in their business models keep on becoming more apparent:

If you saw ads on your Facebook feed showing an alternate reality where France and Germany were governed by Sharia law ahead of the 2016 elections, you’re not alone.

Facebook (FB, +0.89%) and Google (GOOGL, +0.18%) helped advertising company Harris Media run the campaigns for their client, Secure America Now—a conservative, nonprofit advocacy group whose campaign “included a mix of anti-Hillary Clinton and anti-Islam messages,” notes Bloomberg.

According to Bloomberg’s account, Facebook and Google directly collaborated on the campaign, helping “target the ads to more efficiently reach the audiences.” Not only did the two tech giants compete for “millions in ad dollars,” but they also “worked closely” with the group on their ads throughout the 2016 election.

Voters in swing states saw a range of ads, including the faux tourism video that depicted French students being trained to fight for the caliphate, and the Mona Lisa covered in a burqa. Another ad linked Nevada Democratic Senate nominee Catherine Cortez Masto to terrorism, calling on viewers to “stop support of terrorism. Vote against Catherine Cortez Mastro,” and asking them to “vote to protect Nevada.”

Ads were optimized to target specific groups of people that they felt “could be swayed by the anti-refugee message.” And Facebook reportedly used its collaboration with Secure America Now as an opportunity to test new technology as well. Internal reports acquired by Bloomberg show that the ads were viewed millions of times on Facebook and Google.

This case distinguishes itself from that of Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election in that Google and Facebook directly assisted Secure America Now in its targeting of audiences. Of course, the two companies have worked with political groups on their advertising strategies in the past, but the extent and secretive nature of their assistance in this case is uncommon. And the content of the ads themselves reportedly left some Harris employees feeling “uneasy.”

Google and Facebook were not immediately available for comment.

Stephen Colbert Addresses Russian Pokemon Go Election Controversy

PreviousSlide 1/2Next

Stephen Colbert’s Response

As per his usual style of social commentary, Colbert had plenty of fuel for his jokes when combining U.S. politics and Pokemon Go.

He began by taking a shot at Pokemon Go itself, referring to it as a game that’s been forgotten since last year, before moving onto Russia itself. From there, he moved onto a particularly lewd joke about President Trump and the innocent Squirtle, a joke that’s surely been made before but perhaps not yet in the context of this topic.

Of course, he also took a jab at Hillary Clinton and her campaign efforts as well as her questionable reference to Pokemon Go in an attempt to appeal to younger voters, so everyone was still fair game during Colbert’s latest segment.

PreviousSlide 2/2

What Do You Think About the Pokemon Go / Russia Situation?

Russians ‘used Pokemon Go to sow division’ in run-up to US presidential election

A Russian-linked account reportedly used the popular video game Pokemon Go to draw attention to alleged police brutality in the United States.

A report by CNN adds another detail to the emerging portrait of Russian efforts to shape public opinion and foment discord in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

After American intelligence agencies concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin had launched a wide-ranging campaign to “undermine public faith in the US democratic process”, Facebook revealed that Russian entities had purchased thousands of advertisements intended to widen divisions around contentious issues like race and gun rights.

Among the topics reportedly addressed was the Black Lives Matter movement, which seeks to draw attention to African-Americans dying at the hands of police officers. According to CNN, one of the artificial accounts Facebook has taken down was entitled “Don’t Shoot Us” and was used to disseminate information about incidents of police brutality.

The effort reportedly enlisted Pokemon Go, a game in which players use their smartphones to “catch” digital creatures superimposed on the real world. CNN found that Don’t Shoot Us encouraged users to play near sites of reported police violence and to name their Pokemon “with a US police brutality victim’s name”.

Niantic, the company behind Pokemon Go, said in a statement that “our game assets were appropriated and misused in promotions by third parties without our permission“ and that ”our platform was in no way being used“ because players can’t use the app to share information with other players. 

Facebook did not respond to a request to confirm that Don’t Shoot Us was among the suspended accounts.

Congressional investigators are keenly focused on the role social media platforms may have played in helping to disseminate Russian-generated content. Representatives from Facebook, Google and Twitter have been invited to testify on the matter in an upcoming open hearing.

In an interview on Thursday with Axios, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg said Congress should publicly release the Russian-linked ads the social media giant has turned over.

“Things happened on our platform in this election that should not have happened, especially troubling foreign interference in a democratic election,” Ms Sandberg said.

Reuse content

Thoughts on Facebook’s 9 plans to curb election interference – Kopitiam Bot

Election meddling is Facebook’s next adversary, and it’s got a plan to attack it just like it did with fake news. Solutions to both these scourges come too late to prevent tampering that may have aided Donald Trump winning the presidency — but at least Facebook is owning up to the problem, working with the government and starting to self-regulate. Here’s the nine-point plan Zuckerberg has devised to combat election interference, plus our commentary on each strategy’s potential.

One: Providing Russian-bought ads to Congress – “We are actively working with the US government on its ongoing investigations into Russian interference. We have been investigating this for many months, and for a while we had found no evidence of fake accounts linked to Russia running ads. When we recently uncovered this activity, we provided that information to the special counsel. We also briefed Congress — and this morning I directed our team to provide the ads we’ve found to Congress as well. As a general rule, we are limited in what we can discuss publicly about law enforcement investigations, so we may not always be able to share our findings publicly. But we support Congress in deciding how to best use this information to inform the public, and we expect the government to publish its findings when their investigation is complete.”

TC – Facebook initially shared more information with Special Counsel Robert Mueller than Congress, but after checking to make sure it won’t violate privacy laws, it’s giving the Russian-bought ads to Congress too. This could aid their investigation while preventing them from legally extracting the information from Facebook in a messy public ordeal.

Two: Continuing Facebook’s own investigation – “We will continue our investigation into what happened on Facebook in this election. We may find more, and if we do, we will continue to work with the government. We are looking into foreign actors, including additional Russian groups and other former Soviet states, as well as organizations like the campaigns, to further our understanding of how they used our tools. These investigations will take some time, but we will continue our thorough review.”

TC – Facebook’s depth of access to its systems means it could surface evidence of election interference that Mueller or Congress can’t get from just the data Facebook provides. Facebook needs to review not just its advertising systems and fake news in the News Feed, but also use of Events, chat, user profiles, Groups and its other apps like Instagram and WhatsApp.

Three: Political ad transparency – “Going forward — and perhaps the most important step we’re taking — we’re going to make political advertising more transparent. When someone buys political ads on TV or other media, they’re required by law to disclose who paid for them. But you still don’t know if you’re seeing the same messages as everyone else. So we’re going to bring Facebook to an even higher standard of transparency. Not only will you have to disclose which page paid for an ad, but we will also make it so you can visit an advertiser’s page and see the ads they’re currently running to any audience on Facebook. We will roll this out over the coming months, and we will work with others to create a new standard for transparency in online political ads.”

TC – Facebook has held that ads are user content and therefore it could violate privacy to disclose the content and targeting of all ads. Businesses see their ads and targeting schemes as proprietary secrets. But when it comes to election and political advertising, the public good may need to be prioritized above corporate privacy. Building this transparency system may be complicated, and most users might not take the time to use it, but it could assist investigators and provide peace of mind.

Four: Political ad reviews – “We will strengthen our ad review process for political ads. To be clear, it has always been against our policies to use any of our tools in a way that breaks the law — and we already have many controls in place to prevent this. But we can do more. Most ads are bought programmatically through our apps and website without the advertiser ever speaking to anyone at Facebook. That’s what happened here. But even without our employees involved in the sales, we can do better.”

TC – The lack of stronger oversight of political ad buying given the contentious 2016 U.S. presidential election may have been one of Facebook’s most obvious mistakes. It needs to do a better job of understanding when scale isn’t an excuse for weak monitoring of this highly sensitive type of advertising. Facebook has long touted its ability to influence people, but didn’t put sufficient safeguards in place to prevent unethical or illegal influence campaigns. If Facebook can build these scaled systems for programmatic ad buying, it must also do the work to implement programmatic protections against abuse with keyword block lists, visual detection of hateful imagery, and triggers that push ads to human review.

Bonus – Facebook admits it can’t block all the interference – “Now, I’m not going to sit here and tell you we’re going to catch all bad content in our system. We don’t check what people say before they say it, and frankly, I don’t think our society should want us to. Freedom means you don’t have to ask permission first, and that by default you can say what you want. If you break our community standards or the law, then you’re going to face consequences afterwards. We won’t catch everyone immediately, but we can make it harder to try to interfere.”

TC – It’s good to see Facebook being honest about its limitations here. It’s built a community too big to perfectly police, and accepting that is the first step to getting closer to satisfactory protection.

Five: Hiring 250 more election integrity workers – “We are increasing our investment in security and specifically election integrity. In the next year, we will more than double the team working on election integrity. In total, we’ll add more than 250 people across all our teams focused on security and safety for our community.”

TC – Again, this is something Facebook should have known to do before the 2016 election. It’s earning more than $3 billion in profit per quarter, so it can easily afford this staff increase. It’s merely a matter of Facebook foreseeing the worst-case scenarios of how its products could be used, which it’s repeatedly failed to do.

Six: Partnerships with election commissions – “We will expand our partnerships with election commissions around the world. We already work with electoral commissions in many countries to help people register to vote and learn about the issues. We’ll keep doing that, and now we’re also going to establish a channel to inform election commissions of the online risks we’ve identified in their specific elections.”

TC – Rather than simply reacting to election interference, it’s smart for Facebook to proactively seek to provide information to election commissions while also educating the public in order to inoculate them against malicious influence.

Seven: Collaboration with other tech companies – “We will increase sharing of threat information with other tech and security companies. We already share information on bad actors on the internet through programs like ThreatExchange, and now we’re exploring ways we can share more information about anyone attempting to interfere with elections. It is important that tech companies collaborate on this because it’s almost certain that any actor trying to misuse Facebook will also be trying to abuse other internet platforms too.”

TC – Facebook already does this to protect people across the internet from terrorist propaganda and child pornography. As the largest social network, it has the opportunity to serve as a central hub for connecting services like Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat and Google to ensure strategies for blocking election interference are propagated across the web.

Eight: Protecting political discourse from intimidation – “We are working proactively to strengthen the democratic process. Beyond pushing back against threats, we will also create more services to protect our community while engaging in political discourse. For example, we’re looking at adapting our anti-bullying systems to protect against political harassment as well, and we’re scaling our ballot information tools to help more people understand the issues.”

TC – Beyond broadcast forms of interference like ads, fake news and events, Facebook users are vulnerable to being shouted down for voicing reasonable political opinions. While these attacks deal with a person’s viewpoints rather than their inherent identity, like most bullying, Facebook can efficiently repurpose existing technologies to suspend accounts that try to disrupt civil discourse.

Nine: Monitoring the German election – “We have been working to ensure the integrity of the German elections this weekend, from taking actions against thousands of fake accounts, to partnering with public authorities like the Federal Office for Information Security, to sharing security practices with the candidates and parties. We’re also examining the activity of accounts we’ve removed and have not yet found a similar type of effort in Germany. This is incredibly important and we have been focused on this for a while.”

TC – For Facebook to start earning back public trust, it needs to show it can block a significant amount of the attempted interference in elections. This weekend’s German election is a good opportunity for this. If Facebook is seen as inadequately defending democratic processes after being put in the spotlight, it risks even more stringent backlash.

Overall, Facebook’s plan is sensible, even if it comes a year later than needed. Scale can’t be an excuse. Programmatic ad buying that doesn’t go through human sales people is what’s allowed Facebook to grow so large and profitable. Those profits must be reinvested into both human and algorithmic safeguards against abuse. It’s a problem worth throwing money at in the short-term, at least until the behavior of human moderators can be built into more cost-efficient automated systems.

Hopefully Facebook’s mistakes and the general naiveté of tech companies and the public toward election interference will lead to a swing far in the other direction as the world wakes up to how sophisticated attacks on democracy have become.

You can watch Zuckerberg’s announcement video of this new initiative below:

Additional reporting by Jonathan Shieber